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States, War, and the Media

Throughout history, violent conflict has always been mediated. Poems, sculptures, paintings, frescos, books, theatre plays, newspapers, the telegraph, photographs, radio airwaves, television broadcasts, satellites, cinema, cell phones, and – most recently – digital new media platforms. They all have depicted and mediatized war and thereby influenced how we have viewed and approached political violence. Different media platforms in this sense have always played an important role in shaping violent events and our understanding thereof.

Speaking at James Der Derian’s Global Media Project at Brown University on 26 September 2012, Dr Sebastian Kaempf, one of the TheVisionMachine’s contributing editors, discusses the nature of the relationship between conventional (so-called ‘old’) media, war, and traditional actors in international relations. What has been the historical relationship between old media, war, states, and empires? How have concepts of power, agency, and representation been manifested in this relationship? And how has this traditional nexus between the state, war and the media been affected by the recent emergence of digital new media platforms? Ian Slater and other students of the Global Media Project documented and produced this short edited clip of the event.


Stars Earn Stripes (and Shame)

What does it mean to “honor” the men and women who serve in the United States Armed Forces? Does it mean that elected officials act responsibly and only with the most accurate intelligence when making decisions to engage in war? Does it mean providing American troops with the best equipment and technology to enable their success and safety? Does it mean caring for veterans when they return home by providing comprehensive health care and opportunities for employment?

Although the above questions might prompt obvious answers, it is all too often the case that the material conditions of “the troops” are subordinated to the symbolic rituals of “support” that are commonplace in American culture. This is especially true of popular culture, where celebrations of militarism enable the individual members of the U.S. Armed Forces to be used as props in the mediated production of empty patriotism. Even as the United States has declared the war in Iraq to be over and offered a timeline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, Americans are consistently called upon to give thanks and praise to the military. Nowhere is this discourse more prominent than it is in sport

Sport has long been the stage for fanning the flames of nationalism in times of war: the origin of the national anthem ritual at sporting events dates back to Major League Baseball’s decision to play the “Star Spangled Banner” prior to every game in the aftermath of the United States’ entry into World War II; the now ubiquitous Air Force flyovers were legitimized at the height of the Vietnam War prior to the kickoff in Super Bowl II, played in 1968; today, an endless list of “support the troops” and “military appreciation days” are bolstered by military sponsorships, military charity tie-ins, on-field coin tosses and enlistment ceremonies conducted by military personnel, and ritualized performances of patriotic songs and flyovers.

The logic of these rituals and tributes is simple: the more we celebrate “the troops” for their heroism and sacrifice, the less we question whether or not they should have been at war in the first place. Given the spectatorial positioning of audiences for sporting events—for those watching on television as well as those who attend the games live—sport is an especially persuasive metaphor for the impassioned nationalism that too often passes for citizenship. Moreover, sport’s constitutive effects allow militaristic displays to foster in audiences powerful identifications not only with the members of the Armed Forces but also with the performative ethos of “playing war.”

This phenomenon is especially present within “extreme sports” (or “lifestyle sports”), which situate viewers and participants in a discourse of adventure and risk that offers the “rush” of what we could term a “battlefield playground.”  The thrill-seeking characteristic of extreme sports certainly applies to the recent reality-based television program, Stars Earn Stripes,a creation of TV producers Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Voice) and Dick Wolf (Miami Vice, Law & Order). The show pairs “celebrities”—a term stretched to its definitional limits, given the participation of people such as Eve Torres and Todd Palin—with military and law enforcement trainers who compete in “challenges” in order to win money for military-based charities.

Sport provides a context for the show in various ways, including the NBC marketing blitz that promoted it in the late stages of the 2012 London Summer Olympics, as well as the participation of athletes such as Laila Ali, Eve Torres, Picabo Street, and Terry Crews. Most importantly, however, Stars Earn Stripes expands the parameters of the “battlefield playground,” promising audiences an authentic taste of “real” combat. In the words of celebrity participant Dean Cain, “We go on real missions, we receive real training, we go with real live fire.

As is obvious from this promotional video, NBC has gone to lengths to convince viewers of just how real Stars Earn Stripes is. From the simulations of training exercises, to the inclusions of Navy Seals, Green Berets, and retired Gen. Wesley Clark as one of the hosts, to the repeated references to danger and live ammunition, the show would have its audience believe these minor celebrities were being prepared to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan themselves. The most troubling aspect of this production, however, and it is something that scholars have lamented at least since the Persian Gulf War—the “video game war”—of the early 1990s, is that all of the claims to reality mask the ways that Stars Earn Stripes is far from real. The “challenges” are carefully staged and the participants know mostly what to expect; the ammunition may be real, but the targets are not; and, most critically, although someone might experience an injury during these exercises, they are not confronting matters of life and death.

All of this, then, means that Stars Earn Stripes is little more than a glorified video game/recruitment commercial. As the “stars” make clear in this video, this is precisely how they understand their experience. Olympic skier Picabo Street, for example, enthusiastically declares, “I wanna shoot something and have it go boom!” Wrestler Eve Torres suggests the show is “kinda like a real-life action movie or video game.” And boxer Laila Ali boasts, “I’m gonna be livin’ out, you know, a little fantasy of being, like, a warrior princess.” Thus, even as Dick Wolf claims that the show is “really a love song toward the people who keep us safe,” Stars Earn Stripes is actually a valorization of war as a game, something in American culture that exists to entertain and excite us, something through which we may fulfill our fantasies.

It is somewhat encouraging that Stars Earn Stripes has been seen by many for what it is: a crass commercial grab for patriotic imagery with the conflation of sport and war serving as a backdrop.  Veterans have expressed doubts about the show’s virtues.  Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert lampooned it for its audacious claim to being “real.” And most damning, nine Nobel Peace Laureates wrote an open letter to NBC demanding that the show be canceled, noting, “Real war is down in the dirt deadly. People—military and civilians—die in ways that are anything but entertaining.” Despite these criticisms (and others), Stars Earn Stripes was enthusiastically supported by NBC. Much like other contemporary iterations of militarism, the illusion that a war-themed reality television show can “honor” and “support” the nation’s troops is persuasively buried beneath the visual landslide of American flags, muscular helicopters, and breathtaking explosions. Meanwhile, American military operations continue through the remnants of what was the “war on terror,” and millions of lives have been irrevocably altered or lost altogether because of the service that has been required of the U.S. Armed Forces in the past decade. Through the example of Stars Earn Stripes, rather than focus on the human costs of war and the material conditions of military personnel, the culture of militarism is reaffirmed and even extended. In the end, this honors none of us, but shames us all.


Conflict in a Heteropolar Media Landscape

James Der Derian maps the effects of digital new media and technology on contemporary warfare. Drawing on Walter Benjamin and Paul Virilio, he analyzes the heteropolar global media landscape and asks how we can distill meaning as citizens, researchers, and media-makers.

This microdoc was produced by the Global Media Project at the Watson Institute for International Relations at Brown University. James presented this speech at the War 2.0 Symposium in 2010, organized – among others – by thevisionmachine’s very own Maddie Carr and Seb Kaempf.







Which Way Would You Run?

Next to warfighting by direct assault, up the beach, straight into the enemy position, the thing the United States Marine Corps does best is make high-production value appeals to be part of its direct assaults, up the beach, straight into the enemy position.  When asked, many marines easily point to a particular TV commercial that sparked their desire to join the Corps.  Iraq War marines often mention “The Climb.”

Produced in 2002, the sixty-second spot hallmarks the physical hardship of marine training.  It’s a challenge—a dare—to manhood.  The greater hook, though, is the promise of belonging to a select group of such warfighters:  “The passage is intense, but if you complete your journey, you will find your destiny among the world’s greatest warriors.  The few, the proud, the Marines” (seconds 56-60).

What’s really being sold in “The Climb” is Marine Corps tradition, Marine Corps history.  Note that the figure who pulls the recruit to the top of the summit is a World War II infantryman (seconds 48-53); fighting in Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and other Pacific island operations are the Corps’ proudest and most violent moments.  Scenes of marine units hitting the beach during World War II center another leading Iraq War-era commercial, “Pride of the Nation” (2005).

These TV spots invoke the tip-of- the-spear, first-to-fight ideal of the Marines, a combative and even bloodthirsty spirit baldly captured in early-twentieth century recruitment posters.  “Let’s Go Get ‘Em!” from 1942 makes the point in a type of classic, posed aesthetic.  The imperial basis and function of Marine force projection comes through in one of my personal favorites, a 1917 poster depicting a jaunty marine with rifle on a jungle island riding backwards on a jaguar!

Within this microhistory of Marine Corps advertising, a new TV commercial has been released that appears to turn on a decidedly different sensibility.  “Which Way Would You Run” (2012) opens to the distant sound of machine gun fire and women screaming for help from a stark, ominous, smoke-filled desertscape (seconds 1-5); this shaky-camera point-of-view shot continues with close ups of military boots, legs, and then marines running frantically “towards the sounds of chaos” (seconds 6-10).   It’s shot brilliantly, with strobe effect accentuating the tautness of the marines’ back and leg muscles: the moment couldn’t be more desperate—the response couldn’t be more strenuous.  And yet the exact content of that response by the fully-armed marines is ambiguous.

The very center of the 60-second commercial features transport trucks carrying large boxes stamped with an American flag and clearly marked “Aid” (seconds 29-31).  And, in an interview with the New York Times, Brigadier General Joseph L. Osterman, head of the Marines recruiting command describes how the commercial springs from recent marketing research showing that “There is a subset of millennials who believe that the military is an avenue of service to others.  Not only in our nation,” he continues, “but also in others faced with tyranny and injustice.”  General Osterman hastens to add, though, that the Marines remain, first and foremost, an expeditionary, combat-ready military force.  “Are we getting soft?” he asked. “The answer is no.”

Indeed, the “Which Way Would You Run” spot cannily represents both the Marine Corps’ long-standing role as America’s shock troops and its more reluctant face of humanitarianism.  The latter certainly needs some attention after the early-2012 viral video showing marines proudly urinating on Afghani Taliban corpses.  But the new commercial’s aid ethos goes farther back than either this immediate public relations concern or the recently perceived demographic trend towards service.  In returning to “Pride of the Nation,” the voice over heavily emphasizes the word “compassion” while matched with a photograph of a marine feeding a girl with a spoon from his tin rations cup (seconds 30-32).  The image reappears in moving picture in “The Climb,” where it’s projected on the cliff face after a battle-charge scene and before the obligatory raising of the flag at Iwo Jima (seconds 21-23).

In terms of Marine Corps policy and doctrine, focus on humanitarian operations can be traced directly back to 1999 and General Charles C. Krulak’s article “The Strategic Corporal.”  Published during his last year as Corps Commandant, Krulak’s widely-disseminated essay addresses the challenges of post-Magadishu (read Blackhawk Down) “asymmetric” urban warfare. “Modern crisis responses are exceedingly complex endeavors,” Krulak wrote:  “within the space of three contiguous city blocks,” Marines may have to face “the overlapping missions of conventional combat, peacekeeping, and humanitarian aid.”  Distinct concern for marines’ capacity to engage rather than harm the populace also comes through in the The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Field Counterinsurgency Field Manual (2006), the “paradigm shattering” blueprint for transforming the tactics guiding the Iraq War.  Before that treatise, the duality of Marine Corps sensibility was caught in General Jim Mattis’s wartime tagline to the Iraqi people:  “We can be your worst enemy or your best friend.”

The notion of Marine Corps humanitarianism can be dismissed as extremely dubious—impossible to achieve, woefully disingenuous and hegemonic, a projection of force by other means.   This critical perspective informs my book project on the Marines and the optics of combat in the Iraq War.   The key point here is that today’s United States Marine Corps—a remarkably self-possessed institution—is deliberately trying to appeal to young American men (and women) through something more than its tried and true expertise in “killing people and breaking things.” Lest anyone doubt the Marines’ continued commitment to gung ho warfighting, however, the “Which Way Would You Run” recruitment commercial itself shows off its expanded capacity for hitting the beach in the second decade of the twenty first century.

“Which Way Would You Run” can be read as a showcase for MAGTF:  Marine Air Ground Task Force, the Corps’ optimal unit for expeditionary warfare.  While the commercial’s geographic location is nondescript, the operation clearly happens from the sea.  The Marines are “ready to respond, at a moment’s notice” (seconds 12-15), because it has the U.S. Navy to take them pretty much wherever they need or want to be.  With the help of the Navy’s aircraft carriers, along with the country’s airbases throughout the world, the Marines rely heavily on its own airpower.  The 2012 commercial exhibits every attack aircraft type in the Corps:  including F-18 and Harrier fighter jets, Cobra helicopters, and V-22 Osprey.  And marine ground forces are deployed from and across the sea, in this commercial at least, by helicopter, hovercraft, and amphibious landing vehicles.

Produced by the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, “Which Way Would You Run,” while appealing perhaps to new interest in humanitarian service, effectively promotes the highly-distinctive Marine Corps brand.  A signature moment of the commercial comes with the marines literally hitting the beach:  after a few frames of dark screen, the door of a landing vehicle drops open, kicking up sand, with blue ocean in the background and marine infantry pouring out and heading inland (seconds 19-24).  (Compare this segment to “Pride of the Nation,” seconds 6-9).  Finally, the title of the commercial, “Which Way Would You Run,” appearing white on black at the end of the spot, amounts to a familiar Marine dare:  do you have the courage to run to chaos.  In absolutely the most positive light, it’s actually a double dare:  do you have the courage to run to chaos for the sake of helping others.


Innerview: Paul Sparrow

Paul Sparrow, Senior Vice-President/Broadcasting of the Newseum in Washington, DC, reflects on how war and war reporting have been affected by the transformation of today’s media landscape.


Innerview: Medea Benjamin on Drones

The Vision Machine spoke with Medea Benjamin, director of activist organizations Global Exchange and Code Pink.  At the time, she was promoting her new book on the politics of drone warfare.

The Vision Machine’s Roger Stahl conducted this interview in Atlanta just as Benjamin and a delegation from Global Exchange prepared to make a trip to Pakistan to protest drone strikes there.  Her narrative of her trip and her subsequent testimony before congress can be found here.


Innerview: Nick Mottern of Knowdrones

We caught up with Nick Mottern of the project in Lahaska, Pennsylvania in September of 2012.  He speaks about his innovative educational campaign and the urgent need to have a public conversation about the Obama administration’s expanding drone war.  Sebastian Kaempf conducts the interview, Roger Stahl films and edits.